Organize Your Holiday Dinners and Improve Your Results

I do a lot of cooking. Besides cooking three to five times per week for my family, there are parties at home, large family gatherings and vacations, and I even cater a few parties for friends.  Along the way, I learned how to be highly organized to make large scale cooking faster and more reliable. Today I'll share some of my tips, a few of which I hope are new to you.

To put the following advice in perspective, I can recall spending days preparing a complex Christmas or Easter meal. Now I can throw a fairly sophisticated party for 15 to 25 people and usually start cooking for a few hours the night before, followed by cooking for some or most of the next day, but never all of the next day. And that's for pretty high end, complicated cooking.

How? I've become better organized before the cooking even starts. You can too, even of you only cook "big" once or twice per year.

Tip #1. Write out your menu 'formally' and keep it updated when it changes. Don't rely on a simple scrap of paper or a few emails exchanged among y'all. List  the name of the dish and each subcomponent,  like rice for gumbo. Even for a simple party with a couple dishes, this helps.


          Pork Potsticker Dumplings                                            Page 44, Land of Plenty (cookbook)
            -- Lime Dipping Sauce
            -- Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Strips

          Andouille and Shrimp Gumbo                              
            -- Steamed Rice
            -- Crusty Bread
            -- Assorted Hot Sauces

2. Assemble all your recipes in one place. I used to stack up a few issues of Gourmet magazine and a several cookbooks loaded with bookmarks and cook my way through them. Then I started photocopying favorite recipes. Not bad, but it's even easier now because you can print out most recipes from your computer.

From these individual recipe pages you can assemble a clip board or stapled sheaf of recipes all in one convenient place. If you can't get a one-page copy then note the cookbook source on your menu.

Menu and recipes from 2010 Homecoming Dinner
3. Create a master ingredient list from all your recipes. This is not a shopping list (at first). It's a checklist, and it will be a time saver later.

Use Word or Excel to quickly capture the ingredients and quantities. Then you can sort the list by ingredient type and sum up the totals. This sounds excessive, but last week I did it in 20 minutes for a menu that had 8 different dishes, with 16 components (sauces and accompaniments). 

Use this master list to check off what you have on hand vs. what you need to buy. The end result is your shopping list.

Taking this approach will make it almost impossible to forget an important ingredient. If you didn't plan like this and then forget something, someone will spend 20 minutes running to the store. See the lyrics to Robert Earl Keen's classic song Merry Christmas From the Family for a hilarious example.

Or you might skip / substitute an ingredient and not have as good a dish in the end.

4. Be willing to shop at more than one store. It would be convenient to make one giant trip. But if your stores are like mine, there are definitely certain better products at one store than another. In fact, there are some stores here that don't even carry certain items, mostly specialty, but another does. In the end, you'll have a better meal of you get your favorite version of an ingredient. Some preparations about about quality, not time savings.

5. Make as much in advance as you can. Of course you knew this. But let's take it a step further......

6. Create a timeline for when you will be preparing each dish. It doesn't need to be down to the hour. But writing "Fri PM", "Sat Early", "Sat Anytime", "Last Minute" next to each dish (and component) on the menu will help.

You don't have to stick to this plan, but it helps outline what can be done early and what must be done late. You don't need graphs and charts....but it helps. I'm KIDDING. Don't do that.

7. Fill your sink with hot soapy water as soon as you start cooking. This sounds nuts. The usual approach is to pile up a mountain of pots, pans, bowls and utensils, then take a big break and wash them all. Sure, they might be filled with water to soak off the big crud. This is different.

Instead, as soon as you're done with an item or two, toss them into the hot soapy water. Let them sit. If you need one of those items again soon, a quick wash and rinse will have it in your hand in no time.

You might end up using the same pot twice, instead of getting two pots dirty. You get to quickly re-use cooking tools right when you need them. Of course, on a long day of cooking you'll change the water a few times. But it will seem like you barely did any dishes at all by the time you're done.

8. Use painters tape and a Sharpie. You say, "Whaaaaaaat?". Really. This is one of the best tips I can give you, and is something chefs do routinely to identify items in storage containers.

Create a simple label for any item that you can't identify clearly. Two dark sauces in jars? Make a label. Tupperware / plastic ware that you can't see through? Get a label.

Also - use different sized zip-lock bags, which are often better short term storage containers and rigid ones, since they take up less space. Most have a white space so they can be labelled.

9. Determine in advance which pots and pans you'll use for cooking at crunch time and which serving bowls, platter and baskets to use. Get them out at one time so you don't have to dig for them along the way.

Label the serving dishes (see #8) if want, so you don't forget what you planned. For complicated parties and catering, I sometimes label the pots and pans. If I do, I never am short the pan I need when I need it.

Usually I just place all the serving dishes on the kitchen or dining room table. If anything can be temporarily stored at room temperature, like crackers or many vegetables, place them in their serving dish prior to opening or prepping them.

10. Don't sweat anything. Have a glass of wine while you're cooking. Relax. Burn a dish? Throw it away. You'll have plenty of food. Get too busy and skip a planned dish? Who would know (maybe keep that menu to yourself)?

Cooking is about sharing your love and talent with friends and families. Enjoy it.

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